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Letter From the Editor: How to Live Long and Prosper

13 hours 15 min ago

We don’t do enough on the role of technology in food and in advancing food safety. Just like the overall economy, new technologies in food and food safety are driving down costs and delivering greater efficiencies.

I was planning on writing about this even before we lost actor-director Leonard Nimoy last week at the age of 83. The man who, in those first three television seasons of “Star Trek,” made the half-Vulcan science officer, Mr. Spock, part of our culture schooled us all in logic and in use of the scientific method to solve problems.

The methods and devices we first saw introduced many years ago by Mr. Spock on “Star Trek” now seem to be becoming reality (remember the flip-phone?). Science fiction boosters say there is nothing unusual about that, yet for the many of us who are not all that into sci-fi but who were Trekkies, it feels strange.

Next to the “Star Trek” transporter, which will finally free us from both traffic jams and airport security lines, the one tool from the starship Enterprise that we all could use is, of course, the tricorder.

That is the hand-held device that scans, analyzes, and records any substance. It is called a tricorder because it has three primary functions: geological, meteorological and biological. “Star Trek” tricorders came in standard, medical, and engineering models.

Science fiction? Maybe not. Ten teams are competing from around the globe right now for the $10-million Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE, with the goal of making Mr. Spock’s 23rd-century technology available now in the 21st century.

The competition has already inspired a device called the Scanadu Scout, a small round gadget that takes multiple readings with a simple head scan. The XPRIZE is focused on health uses that empower the consumer.

One has to wonder how long it will be before there is a hand-held device that will tell us whether those bananas we want to buy are free of any pathogens. In other words, I won’t be buying any foodborne illness when I get my tricorder. How about you?

In the meantime, we all need to combat pathogens with the technology available to us now. And technical solutions have solved lots of thorny issues. This past week, we heard U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack advance just such a technical solution to the political dispute over how food labels should treat the presence or absence of ingredients containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

“Industry could solve that issue in a heartbeat,” Vilsack said.

His idea — one that I also endorsed about four years ago — is that food packages would contain bar codes or other symbols that could quickly and easily be read by smartphones, which would then spit out ingredient and process information, including GMO info.

It’s not a tricorder, but it would be an effective interim step accommodating everyone with real needs.

However, it’s not industry that’s in the way. It’s the anti-GMO activists who responded to Vilsack’s idea by saying that most consumers don’t have smartphones or don’t know about this scanning business.

What I worry about is when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says such an obvious technical solution is “not currently under discussion.” If the agency in charge of food labels means to say that it’s not going to happen anytime soon, I’d understand. If it means FDA is not thinking about how to use new technologies, I’d be concerned.

Naturally the food manufacturers are thinking about it. Industry adopts new technologies or it dies. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for government. Vilsack was correct in saying the food industry could solve the issue, but he should have gone on to say that only the industry can do it because government cannot, or will not.

The effective use of technology is the only way to be cost-effective while truly filling consumer demands for information about the food they eat, now and in the future. Consumer interests always change, and the demands of tomorrow are unknown today, but they, too, can be accommodated if we deploy the right information technology.

Vilsack, who might well be the most influential Secretary of Agriculture we’ve had in 50 years, should engage industry on this one and make it part of his legacy. A technological solution works for everybody. Remember what Mr. Spock said: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.”

NC Salmonella Outbreak Linked to Re-Cooked Pulled Pork

Fri, 02/27/2015 - 10:22pm

A Salmonella outbreak in North Carolina this past fall that sickened dozens of people has been linked to re-cooked pulled pork served at a church conference.

According to news reports published Friday, the problem was probably smoked Boston butt prepared overnight by a member of the Living Word Tabernacle Church in Bessemer City, NC, and then re-cooked the next day.

An estimated 400 people attended the church conference between Oct. 1-5, 2014, and at least 57 people were later reported as having stomach cramps, diarrhea and fever. Three were hospitalized.

An investigation by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services and the Gaston County Department of Health & Human Services in Gastonia, NC, found that the pork was likely to blame.

The church member who smoked the meat stated that it was cooked at 350 degrees F overnight. However, because it wasn’t thoroughly done, it was cooked longer the next day before being taken over to the church.

This was the first Salmonella outbreak in Gaston County in recent years, according to news reports. North Carolina typically has about four such outbreaks annually.

Salmonella bacteria are often found in uncooked or undercooked meat, milk, eggs, or on surfaces that may have come into contact with fecal matter. Salmonellosis (the infection caused by Salmonella bacteria) often results in severe diarrhea, nausea and abdominal pain. While anyone can become infected, those at greatest risk are infants, the elderly and people with compromised immune systems.

Symptoms usually appear within six to 72 hours after infection, and the illness usually lasts four to seven days. Most people recover without treatment, although, in some people, diarrhea may be so severe that hospitalization is needed.

Tahini Sauce Recalled in Canada for Possible Salmonella Contamination

Fri, 02/27/2015 - 5:55pm

Amira Enterprises Inc. of Montreal, Quebec, is recalling Amira brand Tahini Sauce from the marketplace due to possible Salmonella contamination. Consumers should not consume the recalled product described below.

The following product has been sold nationally:

Brand Product Size UPC Codes Amira Tahini Sauce 750 g 0 69467 40101 0 None


Check to see if you have recalled products in your home. Recalled products should be thrown out or returned to the store where they were purchased.

This recall was triggered by findings by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) during its investigation into a foodborne illness outbreak. CFIA is conducting a food safety investigation, which may lead to the recall of other products. If other high-risk products are recalled, CFIA will notify the public through updated Food Recall Warnings.

CFIA is verifying that industry is removing recalled product from the marketplace. There have been no reported illnesses associated with the consumption of this product.

For more information, contact Amira Enterprises Inc. at (514) 382-9823, ext. 226, or CFIA.

Food contaminated with Salmonella may not look or smell spoiled but can still make you sick. Young children, pregnant women, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems may contract serious and sometimes deadly infections. Healthy people may experience short-term symptoms such as fever, headache, vomiting, nausea, abdominal cramps and diarrhea. Long-term complications may include severe arthritis.

USDA May Move Mechanically Tenderized Beef Labeling to 2016

Fri, 02/27/2015 - 1:04am

While appearing before the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Wednesday, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said USDA will work to introduce labels for mechanically tenderized beef within the next two years.

New labeling laws are implemented in two-year increments so that new label rules made in 2013 or 2014 will be implemented on Jan. 1, 2016. When the mechanically tenderized beef label wasn’t finalized before the end of 2014, advocates were disappointed by the prospect that it wouldn’t make it onto beef packages until 2018.

At the appropriations hearing, Vilsack told Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) that this might not turn out to be the case.

“The way it’s currently structured, we probably couldn’t implement this until 2018,” Vilsack told reporters after the appropriations hearing. “We’re going to try to move that up. I think we’re going to move it up to 2016.”

Mechanical tenderization of beef poses health risks because it can transfer pathogens from the surface of the meat into the center. If these cuts are then not cooked thoroughly enough, the pathogens can sicken the consumer.

Patricia Buck, executive director of the Center for Foodborne Illness Research & Prevention, told Food Safety News that she is very happy with what Vilsack said, but that the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) still has to finish with labeling rule.

“The ball is now in OMB’s court, and it is extremely important that they finalize the rule and send it back to USDA,” she said, adding, “The sooner the better.”

Savings From a Single Food Safety Agency Appeal to Some House Republicans

Fri, 02/27/2015 - 1:03am

Some House Republicans appear to be considering proposals for a single food safety agency.

In January, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) introduced bills to establish such an agency independent of any federal department.

In his budget proposal for fiscal year 2016, President Obama proposed the consolidation of the Agriculture Department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) and the Food and Drug Administration’s food safety components into a new agency within the Department of Health and Human Services.

With food safety oversight currently split up among 15 agencies, DeLauro and Durbin said they thought that tackling the costs of a dispersed system with overlapping responsibilities would appeal to their Republican colleagues.

Some of the questions put to Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety Al Almanza on Thursday during a budget hearing before the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee suggest that those in the majority party are considering the savings.

“It’s helpful for us to have that information as we try to decide whether these are good ideas or bad ideas,” said Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-KS). “I think most of us would certainly believe that government is too large, too expensive, too bureaucratic. So opportunities to reduce some of those inefficiencies, while still providing a good service to our constituents, would be a high priority.”

Yoder asked Almanza what the consolidation of the agencies would look like, how it would affect constituents, and what savings could provide.

“I think it’s too early to tell because we haven’t even started the discussion of how that would look,” Almanza said. “As long as we are at the table and our people can engage in what we believe is the core mission of our agency, that’s where we would be in the discussion.”

In response to Rep. David Young’s (R-IA) questions about prospective savings, USDA’s Budget Officer Michael Young, who appeared as a witness alongside Almanza, said that, “at this point in time, I don’t have any specifics on what the savings might be.”

“Is it your bet that there will be savings and this isn’t going to cost us more?” the congressman asked.

“Again, at this point, I don’t think I can speculate on that,” said the budget officer.

“When you can speculate you’ll let us know?” the congressman pressed.

“Yes, we will,” responded the budget officer.

When Subcommittee Chairman Robert Aderholt (R-AL) asked whether there was a “scientific justification” that supports consolidation of FSIS and FDA, Almanza replied, “not that I’m aware of.”

Overall, the budget hearing was more subdued than last year’s discussion when nearly every issue dogging the agency came up for discussion. Apart from the proposed single food safety agency, most of this year’s questions tied into reports of inspector shortages.

Reps. Sam Farr (D-CA), Chellie Pingree (D-ME) and David Valadao (R-CA) expressed concerns that small beef and chicken producers might not have access to inspected slaughterhouses.

And DeLauro and Pingree raised the issues of increased line speeds and eliminated inspectors in the New Poultry Inspection System (NPIS).

“I feel confident that the New Poultry Inspection System will do exactly what we expect, which is that it will not only reduce foodborne illnesses, but it will put inspectors in the right places to perform food safety actions,” Almanza said.

He also insisted that inspectors would be made available for small businesses and that there is not a widespread shortage of inspectors.

“I know there’s a lot of discussion of shortages, but I travel around the country and I hear about a spot here and a spot there, but it’s not pervasive,” Almanza said.

Canadian BSE Case Demonstrates Need for COOL, Lobby Group Says

Fri, 02/27/2015 - 1:02am

R-CALF USA, which represents the U.S. cattle industry in trade, marketing and private property rights issues, is pointing to a recent case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) — or, as it is commonly called, “mad cow disease” — in a Canadian cow as a reason to maintain country-of-origin labeling (COOL).

The World Trade Organization (WTO) has sided with Canada and Mexico in disputes with the U.S. that COOL for meat is an unfair trade barrier. Processing the U.S. appeal of the decision is what’s currently keeping the other countries from imposing retaliatory tariffs on U.S. products.

Moves by South Korea, Taiwan, Peru, Belarus and Indonesia to restrict imports of beef from Canada “demonstrate that consumers the world over not only have an interest in knowing the country of origin of the beef they purchase; but also, they make purchasing decisions based on country of origin information,” said R-CALF USA CEO Bill Bullard.

The organization, which has long defended COOL, argues that the Canadian BSE case supports labeling as a food safety issue and a benefit to consumers.

The U.S. has not restricted Canadian beef imports, but Bullard said that if consumers want to avoid it, “they can do so today by looking for the country of origin label on their meat purchases.”

Tracing Celery Back After MN Outbreak Finds No More E. Coli

Fri, 02/27/2015 - 1:01am

Potato salad containing fresh celery and contaminated with E. coli O157:H7 sickened 60 people last summer on the Fond Du Lac Reservation west of Duluth, MN. However, the Minnesota Department of Public Health (MPH) was unable to find even one additional stalk with any E. coli in a traceback investigation that went all the way to California’s Salinas Valley.

Therefore, whether the pathogen rode in on the celery or some other ingredient in the potato salad remains unknown.

Minnesota’s investigation into the suspect celery is an example of how difficult it is to find the definitive source of a fresh produce outbreak. While the meat for every hamburger or hotdog you eat is required to be inspected before the product reaches the consumer, virtually no fresh produce is unless it makes somebody sick.

Prior to 2013, USDA’s Microbiological Data Program (MDP) tested regional produce in a cooperative program with about 10 state departments of agriculture around the country. It did about 80 percent of the fresh produce testing that was done before MDP was terminated.

The Interagency Food Analytics Collaboration recently reported that vegetable row crops have taken their place alongside beef as primary sources of E. coli O157:H7 outbreaks.

MDP’s demise leaves only testing like that done by MPH and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in outbreaks such as the one in Minnesota. It was an extensive probe with sample and environmental testing. But, as is so common, running down fresh produce after an outbreak can prove elusive. Too often, the fresh produce is eaten before the the testing can catch up with it.

MPH officials knew from the outset that the celery in last summer’s tainted potato salad was grown by Soledad, CA-based Costa Farms in an area known as the Martignoni Ranch and then taken to Mann Packing Co. in Salinas, CA, for cooling and warehousing.

Last summer, some of that CA-grown celery was served by Jim N’ Jo’s Katering in potato salads at two Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa events: a picnic on July 11 and a wedding on July 12. Jim N’ Jo’s is a catering service in Cloquet, MN, on the eastern edge of the reservation.

Most of the illnesses occurred from July 17 to July 20. Early on, when the first 15 illnesses were reported, MPH found that those sickened had all attended one of the two events having a common caterer.

According to the investigative report, leftover potato salad containing celery was collected by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture and “tested positive for E. coli O157:H7 with a matching PFGE to the confirmed cases.”

Celery stalks were also collected, tested, and “found to be negative for E. coli O157:H7,” MPH reported.

State investigators from MPH’s Food and Drug Branch joined those from FDA in California in mid-August to take environmental samples at both the Martignoni Ranch area where the celery was grown and the packinghouse where it was cooled, stored and shipped.

Samples taken from the ranch and tested were negative for E. coli O157:H7. Furthermore, the joint investigation found that “no factors were observed that may have contributed to cross-contamination at the farm level.” The produce investigation did discover a defunct dairy farm located about 500 feet southwest of the ranch area where the celery was grown.

The report noted that, “Mike Costa of Costa Farms said the dairy had been out of operation for approximately ten years.” Costa told the investigators a few cows were run on the former dairy property. The report added that, “No evidence of livestock intrusion was observed. No evidence of water infiltration to the field of interest was observed.”

Costa Farms uses a labor contractor for harvesting, which is done by hand with knives. Sanitation and employee training records were reviewed, with no problems noted. MPH did not disclose the name of the labor contractor or the companies hired to apply fertilizers and pesticides or non-animal compost. The ranch irrigation water comes from a single well. Water records also checked out as normal.

Other food samples collected from the catering company, including honeydew melons, onions, pineapple, strawberries and cantaloupe, all returned negative results for E. coli O157:H7. Only the sample of potato salad with celery made on July 9 returned a positive result. Several samples of celery stalks were also clean.

MPH has redacted from its report the answers to a 15-page farm investigation questionnaire, known as FDA Form 3623. Food Safety News invited MPH to provide a legal basis for excluding that information from public review, but none was provided.

Meanwhile, the fresh produce testing gap that has existed since MDP ended has now entered its third year with no national or regional plan on the horizon to pick up the slack.

Study: E. Coli Vaccines Are Effective But Economic Incentive Needed

Thu, 02/26/2015 - 1:03am

Despite the proven effectiveness of vaccines designed to decrease the presence of E. coli bacteria in cattle by as much as 98 percent, beef producers are not likely to widely adopt the practice of vaccinating their herds until there is a clear economic incentive, according to a new study by economics researchers at Kansas State University.

Often associated with beef, Shiga toxin-producing E. coli — such as E. coli O157:H7 — is one of the most notorious and harmful foodborne pathogens, infecting an estimated 265,000 people in the U.S. each year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Beyond causing fatal outbreaks, E. coli contamination in beef has also led to numerous food recalls costing billions of dollars.

Beginning in 2009, commercial vaccines have been available to beef producers to significantly reduce E. coli in cattle digestive systems by 50 to 75 percent on average, with some cattle showing reductions as high as 98 percent.

In 2013, a study on the vaccines estimated that their use could reduce E. coli infections in humans by up to 83 percent.

But beef producers have been slow to adopt the vaccines. The most likely reason is that, given their cost, there isn’t a clear enough economic incentive, said Glynn Tonsor, associate professor of Agricultural Economics at KSU and co-author of the study.

Simply put, the vaccines are not tied to an immediate economic benefit for producers. As the authors explain, the presence of E. coli in cattle does not hinder the feeding of cattle or the production of beef and, on the other end, there is not a strong market demand for premium-priced beef that has been treated with an E. coli vaccine.

Tonsor and colleague Ted Schroeder estimate that for every head of cattle, administering an E. coli vaccine costs between $8.35 and $15, depending on how much the animal’s behavior and stress level is impacted by the physical act of administering the shots. Extrapolated over a 10-year period, that adds up to a cost of $1-1.8 billion for the industry, assuming a steady adoption rate.

“At the end of the day, it’s just a higher fit cattle price,” Tonsor told Food Safety News.

In other words, producers aren’t going to introduce new costs to their production process unless they see other costs reduced further down the supply chain or an increased market demand for vaccinated beef.

In order for producers to feel confident about adopting a vaccine, they would need to know one of three results — or a cumulative combination of results — would occur to offset costs:

  • Domestic retail demand for beef increases by 1.7 to 3 percent
  • Export demand for beef increases by 18.1 to 32.6 percent
  • Producer costs decrease by 1.2 to 3.9 percent

Tonsor said he does not see any signs that producers will begin adopting the E. coli vaccines in large numbers anytime soon. For that to happen, retailers or meatpackers will need to begin offering price premiums for vaccinated cattle, though that is not likely to occur without a large amount of public demand.

Few beef producers question the effectiveness of the vaccines, Tonsor said. But a technology has to do more than just work if people are going to adopt it; it has to be economically beneficial.

“The economics work, but they don’t always align with our food safety goals,” he said.

Lawsuit Claims Beneful Dog Food is Poisoning Pets

Thu, 02/26/2015 - 1:02am

A class-action lawsuit filed Feb. 5 in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California claims that certain ingredients in Beneful dry kibble dog food from Nestlé Purina PetCare Company have sickened or killed thousands of dogs.

Frank Lucido of Discovery Bay, CA, states in the complaint that after his family began feeding their three dogs Beneful in late December 2014 or early January of this year, all of them became ill and one died.

A post-mortem examination of the English Bulldog who died reportedly found signs of internal bleeding in the stomach and liver lesions, according to the lawsuit. Similar symptoms were found in the other two dogs, a German Shepherd and a Labrador Retriever.

An official with Nestlé Purina called the lawsuit “baseless” and noted that two earlier class-action lawsuits making similar allegations had been dismissed by the courts.

“We believe the lawsuit is baseless, and we intend to vigorously defend ourselves and our brand,” said Bill Salzman, the company’s director of corporation communications. “Like other pet foods, Beneful is occasionally the subject of social media-driven misinformation. Online postings often contain false, unsupported and misleading allegations that cause undue concern and confusion for our Beneful customers. Bottom line: Consumers can continue to feed Beneful with total confidence.”

According to Nestlé Purina, ingredients in the Beneful brand original style product include:

Ground yellow corn, chicken by-product meal, corn gluten meal, whole wheat flour, animal fat preserved with mixed-tocopherols, rice flour, beef, soy flour, meat and bone meal, propylene glycol, sugar, tricalcium phosphate, salt, phosphoric acid, potassium chloride, animal digest, sorbic acid (a preservative), mono and dicalcium phosphate, dried spinach, dried peas, dried carrots, L-Lysine monohydrochloride, calcium propionate (a preservative), choline chloride, zinc sulfate, Vitamin E supplement, ferrous sulfate, manganese sulfate, Red 40, niacin, Vitamin A supplement, Yellow 6, Yellow 5, copper sulfate, Vitamin B-12 supplement, calcium pantothenate, Blue 2, thiamine mononitrate, garlic oil, pyridoxine hydrochloride, riboflavin supplement, Vitamin D-3 supplement, calcium iodate, menadione sodium bisulfite complex (source of Vitamin K activity), folic acid, biotin, sodium selenite.

The lawsuit contends that propylene glycol is a known animal toxin and a component of antifreeze. However, the company states that the type it uses is FDA-approved and is also used in human foods such as salad dressing and cake mix.

In addition, the suit claims that mycotoxins, which are toxins produced by mold found in grains, are a health risk to dogs.

An attorney for the plaintiff said that after he heard Lucido’s story, he checked into the situation and began to see a pattern of similar allegations among pet owners.

“We found a significant number of folks who were trying to draw exactly the same causal link. Thousands,” said Jeff Cereghino, of Ram, Olson, Cereghino & Kopczynski in San Francisco. “If it’s a hundred or so, it’s like, ‘OK, a lot of dogs eat Beneful; things happen.’ But when you start getting into the thousands … .”

The lawsuit has raised questions among those with pets, said one veterinarian, and she advised those who are concerned to be aware of common poisoning symptoms and bring any concerns to their family vet.

These symptoms include lethargy, decreased activity and appetite, vomiting, diarrhea (sometimes with blood or mucus), increased thirst and increased urination.

“Any time you notice a medical problem or a significant change in your pet’s behavior, you should take them to your family veterinarian or nearest emergency veterinary hospital as soon as possible,” said Dr. Jennifer Welser with BluePearl Veterinary Partners in Tampa Bay, FL.

Lucido’s lawsuit is alleging negligence, misrepresentation, product liability and unfair business practices on the part of Nestlé Purina and is reportedly seeking more than $5 million in damages, plus costs and fees.

Besides Cereghino and three of his firm’s lawyers, Lucido and the class are being represented by John Yanchunis of Morgan & Morgan Complex Litigation Group in Tampa, FL, Karl Molineux and Charles Merrill of Merrill, Nomura & Molineux in Danville, CA, and Donna Solen of Kimbrell Kimbrell & Solen LLC in Washington, D.C.

Food Safety to Play Important Part in 2015 Dietary Guidelines

Thu, 02/26/2015 - 1:01am

What should we eat to be healthy? That’s an important question, because, according to the recently released Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, what we eat has a lot to do with how healthy we are. It’s as simple as that.

But on a national level, it becomes more challenging, especially when considering what the report refers to as the “two fundamental realities” that need to be kept in mind. The first is that about half of all American adults — 117 million individuals — have one or more preventable, chronic diseases, and that about two-thirds of U.S. adults — nearly 155 million individuals — are overweight or obese.

No question about it, those are daunting numbers.

The report points out that these unhealthy conditions have been “highly prevalent” for more than 20 years. Also, according to the report, eating unhealthy foods and consuming too many calories, coupled with too little physical activity, directly contributes to these preventable health problems.

The second “fundamental reality” guiding the committee is that people can improve their health by making changes in their lives, among them eating healthier foods and getting more physical exercise.

In other words, for the most part, we, the consumers, are in the driver’s seat, and the dietary guidelines are there to serve as a road map. It’s all about helping to prevent a culinary crash that could ruin our health  — or kill us.

And, yes, food safety is part of this, especially when considering the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which, like the report, takes a preventive approach to safeguarding people’s health.

As for the role consumers play in food safety, a section of the report states that individual behaviors, along with sound government policies and responsible private-sector practices, are needed to reduce foodborne illnesses.

A quick background

The 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee was jointly established by the secretaries of the US. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The committee was asked to examine the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010, to see if there is new scientific evidence that can be used in the 2015 Dietary Guidelines.

The primary focus of these ongoing reports is to develop food-based recommendations for Americans 2 years old and older. Instead of being mere “dust collectors” to be put on a shelf and forgotten, the reports are used to help develop federal nutrition policy and a variety of programs, among them education, outreach, and food-assistance programs throughout the nation, including food stamps.

What we already know, or at least believe

For the most part, the evidence the committee examined reveals what many people already know, or at least believe to be true: A healthy diet is higher in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low- or non-fat dairy, seafood, poultry, legumes and nuts; lower in red and processed meat; and low in sugar-sweetened foods and drinks and refined grains (such as those used in cookies, snack crackers, cakes, and most breads).

But the report also shows “moderate to strong evidence” that higher intake of red and processed meats was identified as detrimental compared to lower intake, as is the case for higher consumption of sugar-sweetened foods and beverages, as well as refined grains.

That’s where some of the nation’s favorite foods — burgers, pizza, tacos, sandwiches, mixed dishes, desserts and sugar-sweetened beverages, all of which are mentioned in the report — come into the picture.

The report suggests that the composition of many of these food items could be improved in ways to increase consumption of vegetables, whole grains and other under-consumed food groups as well as to lower intake of sodium, saturated fat, added sugar, and refined grains.

The report also noted that no matter where people are buying their food — whether in supermarkets, convenience stores, schools, or at the workplace — overall, the needs of a healthy diet for the U.S. population do not meet recommendations for vegetables, fruit, dairy or whole grains and exceed recommended amounts of sodium, saturated fat, refined grains, solid fats and added sugars.

Reading between the lines: The typical American diet is fraught with health risks.

What’s new?

The report includes some proposed changes to the current Dietary Guidelines. For example, the committee recommends lifting previous restrictions on how much cholesterol people should eat  (previously 300 milligrams — or about an egg-and-a-half per day). It follows up by stating there’s no clear connection between the amount of cholesterol people eat and their blood cholesterol levels. Going one step forward, it states that saturated fats are to blame for high cholesterol levels.

As for coffee, feel free to drink 3 to 5 cups of coffee a day, since that amount isn’t linked to any long-term health risks. In contrast, according to the report, coffee consumption has actually been associated with decreased risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

Feel like a drink? While the report agreed with previous Dietary Guidelines that, when consumed by adults in moderation, alcoholic beverages can be part of a healthy diet, it also includes a warning for women. They should be aware that there’s a moderate increase in risk for breast cancer, even when alcohol is consumed in moderation.

What about fish? According to information the committee reviewed, farm-raised seafood has as much or more healthy Omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA per serving as wild-caught salmon. Also, according to the report, neither the risks of mercury or organic pollutants outweigh the health benefits of eating seafood.

A call for ‘preventive nutrition’ services

While individuals can take meaningful steps to improve their health through diet, the report calls for government and public-health entities to include preventive nutrition services — which, the reports notes, “are largely unavailable in the U.S. health system.” There’s also a need, according to the report, to “systematically address” nutrition-related health problems, including overweight and obesity, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and other health outcomes.

In other words, how many doctors and health-care providers actually discuss the type of foods their patients are eating and, if necessary, provide information about which foods would be healthier?

Food safety an important player

With fruits and vegetables in the report’s “health spotlight,” questions about food safety are sure to arise, especially since a lot of produce is eaten raw. Then, too, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is working on coming up with a list of “high-risk” foods. Already named as high-risk foods by the agency are leafy greens (raw spinach and leaf lettuce) and tomatoes — both of which have been implicated in foodborne illness outbreaks and recalls.

Generally, produce that is eaten raw is more prone to being contaminated with foodborne pathogens than produce that’s cooked simply because high cooking temperatures do a good job of zapping pathogens.

Just recently, whole apples from a California packing company, and, several years ago, cantaloupes from a Colorado farm, were implicated in major foodborne illness outbreaks and recalls. Both came as a surprise to consumers and public health officials alike. In the case of apples, for example, there had never before been an outbreak connected to whole apples.

Referring to foodborne illness outbreaks involving produce, Trevor Suslow, food-safety guru at the University of California-Davis, told Food Safety News in an email that there’s “a notion,” which has been around since the mid-1990s, that at least one reason for the uptick in foodborne illnesses and outbreaks connected to fresh produce in this country is that people are eating more of it.

He points to some reasons for this: year-round availability of most produce, greater foodservice and consumer convenience in the fresh categories, and strong science-based messages extolling the many long-term health benefits of a diet that includes diverse fruits, nuts, and vegetables.

Consumer confidence is an important part of the equation, and Suslow said that the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), along with industry-driven initiatives around food safety, are providing, and sustaining, a high level of consumer confidence in the safety of produce in the marketplace.

He’s confident that FSMA’s provisions and compliance requirements in the rule-making process will establish enforceable standards, which will include fresh, minimally processed (fresh-cut), frozen, dehydrated, and traditionally processed produce.

Suslow also said that “with its fundamental focus on prevention,” FSMA is expected to “greatly broaden awareness” of the importance of food-safety principles at all scales of production and handling. This, in turn, supports the public-health objectives of increased consumption of fresh and quick-frozen produce in particular. 

“The industry is clearly on board with the proposed Dietary Guidelines and recognizes the importance of designing and implementing a systems approach to food safety,” he said.

FSMA’s final rule on produce safety, which includes standards for the growing, harvesting, packing, and holding of produce for human consumption is, by court order, due in October. Compliance dates will vary by size of operation and specific provisions dealing with topics such as agricultural water use.

Warren Morgan, an Eastern Washington orchardist and owner of Double Diamond, which annually packs about 2 million boxes of apples, cherries and apricots, told Food Safety News in an email that he’s glad the proposed Dietary Guidelines encourage eating fresh fruit and believes that it is a healthy choice for kids and their parents.

Pointing out that the industry invests millions of dollars in research, some of which is directed toward the interaction between foodborne pathogens and tree fruits, Morgan said he firmly believes in the importance of following strict food-safety practices. Part of that is adopting a company-wide culture around food safety, which includes training employees and keeping extensive records that document just what’s being done, where and when, all along the line.

“The Washington state tree fruit industry has an obligation to deliver safe and nutritious apples, pears and cherries to consumers,” he said.

Even so, Morgan said that as farming operations become larger, there’s more risk of cross-contamination, which is why following food-safety practices becomes increasingly important.

In an article in Good Fruit Grower, he explained the nitty-gritty realities of the challenge: “Pathogens are doing their best to make it into our buildings, and our job is to beat them back as best we can.”

Red meat battle flares up again

The report’s section on “Food Sustainability and Safety” begins by stating that, “Access to sufficient, nutritious, and safe food is an essential element of food security for the U.S. population.”

But, when it goes on from there to talk about the environment, that’s entering territory it has no business being in, say some livestock industry and conservative think-tank representatives.

Here’s some of that section that’s got them “seeing red”: “The major findings regarding sustainable diets were that a diet higher in plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, and lower in calories and animal-based foods is more health promoting and is associated with less environmental impact than is the current U.S. diet.”

From there, it adds some fuel to the fire by stating that current evidence shows that the average U.S. diet has a larger environmental impact in terms of increased greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water use, and energy use, compared to three other diet patterns, the  Healthy U.S.-style Pattern, the Healthy Mediterranean-style Pattern, and the Healthy Vegetarian Pattern. This, according to the report, is because Americans eat more animal-based foods and fewer plant-based foods than is the case in the other diet patterns.

However, the report also notes that “no food groups need to be eliminated completely to improve sustainability outcomes over the current status.”

But that’s not flying with those who see “climate-change activists” at work.

Jeff Stier, a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research, stated in a press release that the report was “heavily influenced by activists’ plans to change the nation’s Dietary Guidelines to promote foods that they believe have ‘a smaller carbon footprint.’”

That’s in contrast, he said, to the past intent of Congress when the dietary guidelines were intended exclusively to “promote health and reduce risk for major chronic diseases.”

Stier also warned that if the Obama administration allows this to become part of the official Dietary Guidelines to be released later this year, “it will cost the public money and not make us any healthier.”

We’re talking about red meat for the most part, which has provoked the ire of meat-industry folks. Mary Soukup, the editor of Drovers/CattleNetwork, stated in a commentary that the advisory report decided not only to recommend lower meat consumption but also “to veer off course and venture into the realm of environmental sustainability.”

According to Soukup, both the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the North American Meat Institute say that the committee is contradicting itself by first recommending a health pattern lower in red and processed meat, and second, by endorsing the Mediterranean diet, which has higher red meat levels than currently consumed in the U.S.

Soukup’s commentary also points out that in the past 30 years, thanks to advancements in production, genetics and processing, beef has 34 percent less total fat and 17 percent less saturated fat. In addition, beef is recognized as an excellent source of six nutrients: protein, zinc, vitamin B12, vitamin B6, niacin and selenium, as well as a good source of four nutrients: phosphorous, choline, iron and riboflavin.

Another complaint she has relates to the composition of the 14-person Dietary Guidelines committee, which she says is made up of “a plethora of human health and wellness experts,” but not one agronomist, animal scientist, economist or food producer of any type.

On the other side of the fence, Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said that the recommendation to eat less red and processed meat deserves to be in the final Dietary Guidelines for Americans “and not excised at the behest of the meat industry.”

Next steps

The report has been published in the Federal Register and will be open for public comment until April 8. After the comment period closes, USDA and HHS will review it and the public comments and then publish the 8th edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which will likely happen this fall.

Texas Salmonella Outbreak at 59 Cases; Lawsuit Filed

Wed, 02/25/2015 - 10:30pm

At least 59 people have reportedly been sickened in a Salmonella outbreak connected in part to the Ten in Texas steakhouse in Dalhart, TX.

One of the restaurant’s customers who was sickened, Frances Childers, is filing a lawsuit against the restaurant. Her attorneys say that she suffered from kidney failure, along with abdominal pains, nausea and muscle aches.

Childers is being represented by Houston attorney John C. Ramey and Seattle-based food safety attorney Bill Marler (his law firm, Marler Clark, underwrites Food Safety News).

At least 30 of the 59 reported cases are linked to Ten in Texas, with more cases cropping up in Dalhart and nearby communities.

The original source of the outbreak has not been found, though health officials are still conducting an investigation.

Ten in Texas voluntarily closed for a week to undergo cleaning and sanitization.

Other cases have appeared in the communities of Bushland and Amarillo. For the most part, those cases have no apparent connection to the Dalhart steakhouse.

Filberts Recalled for Possible Salmonella Contamination

Wed, 02/25/2015 - 11:58am

Fairway “Like No Other Market” of New York, NY, is recalling Fairway brand Raw Hazelnuts (Filberts) because the product has the potential to be contaminated with Salmonella. The Fairway brand Raw Hazelnuts (Filberts) were distributed to Fairway stores in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, and also through home delivery programs provided by Google and Instacart.

The product is packaged in clear, plastic cello bags of varying weights, each weighing less than one pound. The product bears Item Code 228119. All “SELL BY” Date codes of May 15, 2015, and earlier are being recalled.

There have been no reported illnesses to date.

The recall is the result of a routine sampling program by FDA, which revealed that the finished product contained the bacteria. The company has ceased distribution of the Fairway brand Raw Hazelnut (Filberts) and removed the product from Fairway store shelves while FDA and the company continue their investigation into what caused the problem.

Consumers who purchased the Fairway brand Raw Hazelnuts (Filberts) should return the product to the place of purchase for a full refund. Consumers with questions may contact the company at (855) 856-9566, Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. EST.

Salmonella can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections in young children, frail or elderly people, and others with weakened immune systems. Healthy persons infected with Salmonella often experience fever, diarrhea (which may be bloody), nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain. In rare circumstances, infection with Salmonella can result in the organism getting into the bloodstream and producing more severe illnesses, such as arterial infections (e.g., infected aneurysms), endocarditis and arthritis.

Missouri Bill Seeks End to State and Local Regulation of Direct Farm Sales

Wed, 02/25/2015 - 1:03am

A Missouri state legislator wants to give people the right to sell farm-produced products directly to the consumer without any interference from state or local regulatory agencies.

House Bill 866 is similar to the fast-moving Wyoming “Food Freedom Act,” which unanimously passed the House in Cheyenne late last month and is now in line for possible action on the Senate floor. The Wyoming Legislature is scheduled to adjourn March 6.

Missouri State Rep. Mike Moon (R-Ash Grove) is sponsoring HB 866, but he has not managed to get it scheduled or assigned on a House calendar. Elected in 2013, Moon lives on a farm in Lawrence County, MO.

“As a farmer, Mike has experienced the struggles food producers face to maintain a viable business in a down economy and he has made the tough decisions necessary to stay in business,” according to his campaign biography. “He has also realized the success and satisfaction that results in providing a quality product to America’s tables.”

His campaign website also notes that Moon is “committed to retaining and returning freedoms to the citizens of Missouri.”

Moon’s “farm-direct goods” bill runs only about a page, much shorter than the 9-page Wyoming “Food Freedom Act.” It states that Missouri residents “must have the right” to buy or purchase directly from the seller “any farm-direct goods” produced in the state.

The bill also declares that the seller of farm-produced goods “must retain the right to choose” whether or not the farm-direct goods and sales of those goods must be subject to regulation by the state, any political subdivision of the state, or any state or local regulatory agency.

If a seller opts out of regulation, potential buyers must be provided with notice in the form of signs, labels on packages, or verbally “that the farm-direct goods are not subject to regulation.” The buyer then “retains the responsibility” that the farm-direct goods meet with the buyer’s approval.

Moon’s bill ends by asserting that the state and its political subdivisions, or any state or local agency, “must not interfere or otherwise attempt to regulate the sale and purchase of farm-direct goods not subject to regulation under [the bill’s] provisions.”

Finally, it states that the bill is not intended to provide immunity from liability for any actions of gross negligence.

Moon, who serves on four House committees, including agricultural appropriations, has plenty of time to move his bill. The Missouri General Assembly is not scheduled to adjourn until May 30.

The Wyoming “Food Freedom Bill” was listed on Tuesday’s second-reading calendar in the Senate as “laid back,” which means it could still get the Senate floor votes it needs anytime during the next 10 days before adjournment.

Current Issues in Produce Safety: The Packinghouse

Wed, 02/25/2015 - 1:02am

(This is Part 1A of a five-part series on produce safety by Roy E. Costa, R.S., M.S., a registered professional sanitarian and founder/owner of Environ Health Associates Inc.  The series introduction was posted here on Feb. 10, 2015.)

The purpose of this series on produce safety is to explain the nature of the produce industry from a food safety perspective and to explore the factors that give rise to the contamination of fresh fruits and vegetables. Most important, these articles identify areas of food safety management systems that need strengthening. This series is written for produce professionals, food safety practitioners and others who have an interest in learning about food safety in this rapidly changing and critically important arena.

Food safety specialists will be needed in the coming years to assist a very large and diverse produce industry in deploying HACCP-based food safety programs. Knowledgeable practitioners are also needed to maintain the scientifically rigorous requirements of FDA’s new rules for produce under the Food Safety Modernization Act. Through this series, professionals who are familiar with HACCP in other food categories should gain valuable insights into the safe production of fresh produce and learn about produce industry operations.

Fresh produce is grown in non-sterile, open environments subject to several avenues of contamination. If a fresh produce item becomes contaminated, disease-causing agents can persist and contaminate operating environments and further spread. While there are some recognized higher-risk commodities, such as sprouts, tomatoes, cantaloupe and leafy green vegetables, numerous fresh produce commodities may cause illness if exposed to environmental contamination. Therefore, ongoing and serious produce-associated outbreaks of illness continue in spite of best efforts, and produce safety has taken center stage in the national debate over how to improve the safety of our nation’s food supply.

This series will explore the somewhat unique challenges of practicing food safety in agricultural settings. There are five installments planned in this series on food safety practices in the growing, harvesting, packing, processing and distribution of fresh produce items.

The series begins with a discussion of food safety in packinghouse operations, a central point in the fresh produce supply chain.

Packinghouse Operations

A packinghouse essentially exists to provide a facility to package and preserve perishable agricultural products and prepare them for shipment. The services make the mass marketing of fruits and vegetables possible by applying final unit packaging, labeling and branding. While many products are still “field-packed,” consumer demand for fresh fruits and vegetables has created a greater need for centralized operations that allow for the production of larger quantities of products than in the past.

Packing facilities evolved along with our modern transportation system as a means of coalescing agricultural products and facilitating their timely transport to population centers. Because the packinghouse is usually the first link in the supply chain after the farm, many packing operations evolved along with the farms with which they are closely associated. Packinghouse designs vary greatly from very simple structures, such as open sheds or barns, to more substantial buildings with enclosed mechanical packing lines, cooling equipment, and refrigerated storage and production areas.

A packinghouse may purchase products from growers and sell them, or simply act as a storage and distribution hub (cross-dock operations). The operation may run year-round or only operate during the growing season, remaining dormant the rest of the year. A packing operation may only handle one type of product or handle a variety of products, or may be set up to handle a few similar items (carrots and onions). The farmers who grew and harvested the product may operate the packinghouse (a type of vertical integration), which may be located on the farm, or it may be an independently operated central point off the farm. In this case, several growers in a geographic area may utilize such packing and transportation services in a contractual arrangement with the owners of the packinghouse.

Harvested products arrive in bulk and are typically “dumped” from the delivery vehicle or otherwise unloaded. In mechanized operations, conveyor belts and flumes move the incoming products to a mechanical packing line. Products often pass through a grading procedure to grade-out poor-quality units and are sized and sorted. Produce may be directly packed by hand into containers, or the mechanical packing line may facilitated the filling of containers with products, such as berries or grape tomatoes, dispensing products directly to the final unit package. After packaging and palletizing, hand labor, forklifts and pallet jacks are used to move products into storage.

In addition to operational steps, such as receiving, grading, sorting, washing, packing, labeling, storing and shipping, packinghouses may also cool, trim, ripen (with ethylene gas), fumigate (rarely), colorize, and apply ice. “Repack” operations are specialized facilities used to recondition previously packaged products. In these types of operations, products are often graded and repackaged into new containers, then stored and shipped.

Packaging includes bulk bins, boxes, cartons, clamshells, bags, and trays, and may also include value-added case-ready smaller portions of products. The facility may store packed products for extended periods and later ship them, or quickly ship them to maintain quality and freshness. Shipping may involve in-house vehicles, or contracted carriers, to move products to wholesale or retail markets, processors, or food service operations. Finally, finished products may be directly picked up by customers in their own trucks.

Food Safety Regulation and Oversight

In the world of agriculture, food safety is a relatively new concept. Whereas food safety in red meat and poultry production has a 100-year history, it is only since 1998, when FDA published its FDA Guide to Minimize Microbial Food Safety Hazards for Fresh Fruits and Vegetables, that food safety has been a focus of the produce industry. USDA has had a close working relationship with the produce industry and sets quality standards (grades) for many types of produce and also has developed produce food safety standards (USDA-GAP) adopted by many local operations.

In some jurisdictions, such as Florida, state departments of agriculture have programs to regulate aspects of the produce industry, but most farms have had very little, if any, food safety regulatory oversight.

Due to the vacuum left by the absence of consistent and effective food safety regulations, the produce industry itself has developed best practices and self-regulation frameworks with the assistance of third-party auditing firms. Third parties develop standards and codes of practice in cooperation with industry and government authorities. The foundation for third-party standards are the guidance documents previously mentioned and a growing number of commodity-specific standards. These new standards are evolving in the industry; they are made up of commodity-focused quasi-governmental rules that spell out the requirements for Good Agricultural Practices (GAP), such as the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, the Western Growers Association guidance for the melon industry, and the Florida Tomato GAP rule.

Many primary producers are practicing voluntary compliance with guidance documents, but a large segment of the produce industry remains largely unregulated. The FDA Food Safety and Modernization Act of 2011 (FSMA) promises significant changes to food safety requirements but is yet to be implemented in produce. FSMA has been on a political roller coaster since its inception, and uncertainty and controversy still surround the rules. Many observers question whether FDA can even carry out its mission. However, FDA has entered into agreements with state departments of agriculture, and local agencies may be able to provide the needed manpower.

Thanks to pressure from the world’s largest retailers, there has been movement to adopt various sets of buyer-driven voluntary standards, and today, most major produce operations, both foreign and domestic, have some type of food safety program in place. While many operations are participating, sizable portions of the U.S. produce industry remain without any food safety oversight. Firms that directly sell to food service or to smaller local and regional grocers and direct sales from farmers to consumers (farmers markets, u-pick, etc.) often lack oversight.

Current Good Manufacturing Practices

Packinghouses differ from “processors” (to be covered in a later article) in that a packinghouse does not significantly alter the form of the product. If products are physically altered, the requirements for processing then apply. Processing standards regarding Current Good Manufacturing Practices have been established under FDA for many years, but packinghouses have not been so regulated, and safety practices in this setting are still evolving.

While food safety for the packinghouse traditionally begins when products arrive at the loading dock, the volume of incoming materials makes assessing the condition of products difficult at that point. Products arriving from growing operations may contain pesticide residues, residues of soil and foreign matter, and, occasionally, harmful microbes. Grading procedures are necessary to remove what is visibly unacceptable due to decay or damage, but of course harmful microorganisms go undetected.

Personal hygiene is a key food safety issue whenever workers come in contact with produce, such as during grading, sorting and packing. The risk of contamination from a worker is dependent on how much handling is required and the nature of the product (e.g., whether it has an inedible peel or rind), or is cooked before consumption. Packinghouse operations that repack previously packaged product need to devote special attention to personal hygiene since excessive handling in such packing operations increases the risk of hand-to-food transmission, as well as cross-contamination.

Well-designed and adequately supplied bathroom and hand-washing facilities in efficient locations and sufficient numbers are needed to reduce handling risks in all packinghouses. The failure to properly locate and maintain hand-washing facilities and bathrooms is a common problem and is often the result of poor planning and design. The poor design problem is the result of two missing elements: the lack of mandated or recommended plan reviews by qualified building officials and the lack of available design criteria for packinghouse facilities. Although the buyer’s standards often specify the number and location requirements for hygiene facilities, there are many existing structures without proper utilities, making after-the-fact corrections problematic. In seasonal operations, even portable toilets and portable sinks may be used. Such facilities usually lack warm water and constant maintenance is needed to maintain cleanliness, prevent wastewater spills and avoid exceeding the capacity of holding tanks, and to maintain supplies of water, soap, and other needed personal hygiene items.

While workers, the production environment, and equipment can directly contaminate, or cross-contaminate products during production, perhaps the major food safety issue in packing operations involves the use of process-water.

Study: Reusable Plastic Produce Containers Harbor Bacteria Even After Being Cleaned, Sanitized

Wed, 02/25/2015 - 1:01am

Reusable plastic containers used to transport large amounts of fruits and vegetables to grocery stores can continue to harbor potentially harmful bacteria directly on their surfaces, even after undergoing industry-standard cleaning and sanitizing, according to a new study conducted by researchers from the University of Arkansas and WBA Analytical Laboratories.

The study took a microscopically close look at the materials used to make the reusable plastic containers (RPCs) that have gained a foothold in the grocery industry in recent years as a preferred method of transporting produce.

The findings suggest that a return to single-use containers for fresh produce might reduce the risk of foodborne illness outbreaks associated with those products, said Steven Ricke, co-author of the study and a professor at the University of Arkansas Center for Food Safety.

The researchers allowed Salmonella, Listeria monocytogenes, and E. coli O157:H7 bacteria to grow on the RPC surface and then subjected sample surfaces to cleaning and sanitizing practices typical in the industry. In all cases, the materials still harbored biofilms that protected the bacteria and would theoretically allow bacteria to colonize the next shipment of fruits and vegetables to be put in the containers.

“Any time you start using these things over and over again, you increase the opportunities for pathogens to propagate,” Ricke told Food Safety News. “It’s really increasing the chance of bacteria getting fixed to the surface.”

He said the study’s objective was to see whether or not bacterial biofilms could survive on the surface of RPC material. After cleaning, they examined RPC samples with a scanning electron microscope (SEM) and found the bacteria on every sample cleaned.

“One of the interesting things we saw in the SEM is that it might look fine to the naked eye, but when you look closer it has almost a lunar landscape to it,” Ricke said, suggesting the rough surfaces might be easier for bacteria to colonize.

In a future study, the researchers hope to measure the exact percentage of bacteria that remains after the cleaning process, but they don’t have that information based on this study, Ricke said. For now, they were just interested in seeing if the bacteria could survive the cleaning at all.

There is no hard evidence linking any foodborne illness outbreaks to lingering contamination on RPCs, and Ricke said he did not want to make any speculations about illnesses caused without evidence. However, he added, the presence of bacteria after cleaning meant that the possibility of disease transmission could not be ruled out.

Ricke said that industry needs to look into doing a risk assessment and cost assessment of using RPCs for transporting produce, adding that he knew the suggestion makes him sound “like an academic.”

Reusable plastic containers have been under scrutiny from certain food safety academics in recent years. Researchers from both the University of California-Davis and the University of Guelph have conducted studies finding that RPCs are often still contaminated when delivered to produce packers.

In November 2014, the president of the Reusable Packaging Association responded to the criticisms, saying that there have been no cases of illness linked to RPCs and that the association had established a food safety standards committee to strengthen the safety of the containers even more.

Agencies Develop New Model for Foodborne Illness Sources

Tue, 02/24/2015 - 12:04pm

Understanding which foods are most commonly responsible for certain foodborne illnesses helps in developing effective prevention measures.

Today, the three federal agencies involved in the Interagency Food Safety Analytics Collaboration (IFSAC) released details of their new method for estimating the sources of Salmonella, E. coli O157, Listeria monocytogenes, and Campylobacter.

IFSAC is a partnership between the Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It was formed in 2011 in order to improve foodborne illness source attribution and provide estimates for the four high priority pathogens.

“The different agencies have looked at different ways of answering this question about how many illnesses are we seeing from different food commodities, but this collaboration lets us share resources, expertise and the data to produce a coordinated approach to making the U.S. food supply even safer,” said Chris Braden, director of  CDC’s Division of Foodborne, Waterborne and Environmental Diseases.

For the new model, the team analyzed outbreaks that occurred between 1998 and 2012, excluding those that involved multiple pathogens, those for which no food vehicle was identified, and those attributed to food containing multiple ingredients.

The new model using data from the resulting 952 outbreaks differs from previous methods by using a categorization of foods updated to align with the regulatory framework of FDA and FSIS, emphasizing more recent outbreaks by giving less weight to data from 1998 through 2007, and decreasing the bias that potentially results from very large outbreaks.

Eighty-two percent of E. coli O157 illnesses were attributed to beef and vegetable row crops such as leafy greens, and 81 percent of Listeria illnesses were attributed to fruit and dairy.

Nearly 75 percent of Campylobacter illnesses were attributed to dairy and chicken. Most dairy outbreaks used in the analysis were related to raw milk or cheese produced from raw milk.

Salmonella was distributed across a range of foods, with 77 percent linked to seeded vegetables, eggs, fruits, chicken, beef, sprouts and pork.

“This suggests interventions designed to reduce foodborne salmonellosis need to include a variety of approaches,” IFSAC’s report states.

The updated estimates also included “credibility intervals,” which are a way of showing how sure the team is that the percentages are accurate. For example, there were only 24 outbreaks of Listeria in the 15 years of data, which led to less confidence in the pathogen’s estimates.

“For [Listeria monocytogenes], the limited number of outbreaks and wide credibility intervals dictate caution in interpreting the attribution percentages for fruit and dairy,” the report notes. “Nonetheless, Lm outbreaks have been frequently linked to the Dairy category, specifically with the consumption of soft cheeses by pregnant women and persons with weakened immune systems. Although the wide credibility interval for the Fruit category substantially limits interpretation, the analysis does suggest vigilance in seeking unrecognized sources of outbreaks and illnesses in this food category.”

Braden emphasized that the data relate to overall population risk. The information is “an aggregate over the population and an aggregate of the foods in these categories and shouldn’t really be used to determine individual person or individual food risk,” he said.

Members of IFSAC said that the new estimates may influence the regulatory decisions that FSIS and FDA have to make, help determine where resources are best used, and show where progress has been made in prevention efforts.

Chris Alvares, director of FSIS’ Data Analysis and Integration Staff, said that one of the findings the team found particularly interesting concerned Salmonella in pork products. The agency’s recently initiated sampling program to explore Salmonella in pork was “[partially] informed by some of the attribution findings in this kind of analysis.”

These data don’t examine trends, but Goldman said the collaboration will be interested to see if they can use updated estimates to measure progress over time.

IFSAC members have not yet decided how often they’ll update the estimates, and one of the team’s next projects will be “to look at the appropriate frequency,” Goldman said.

This is one aspect of the work on which IFSAC will be soliciting comments.

Some limitations on the data and analysis outlined in the report include a lack of representation of foods responsible for sporadic disease and an unintentional emphasis on some foods such as unpasteurized milk that are not regularly consumed by the general population.

In addition, the team only analyzed 36 percent of foodborne outbreaks reported over the 15-year timeframe, and 10 percent of the illnesses occurred with institutions such as prisons, hospitals and schools.

Denmark’s National Food Institute Says Europe’s BPA Safe Levels Need Work

Tue, 02/24/2015 - 1:03am

Those epoxy resins used to line metal food cans and some plastic containers are safe at current permitted levels, with some European bickering still going on about where lower limits should be placed.

They may not have gotten that memo yet in North Carolina, where a “Toxic Free Kids Act” has been introduced on the theory that “it can be impossible for parents to tell the difference between toxic products and safe ones.” NC’s Senate Bill 81 would ban bisphenol-A (BPA) in children’s products.

Food safety authorities in both the U.S. and Europe, however, have recently found BPA levels being used in such cans and bottles are safe for children and adults.

Two years ago, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) took the precaution of banning the substance in baby bottles and sip cups. But, in its official 2014 assessment, FDA found current exposure levels of 5 micrograms per day as safe, a finding it based on 300 scientific studies conducted from 2009 to 2013.

Then in January, the influential European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) found that BPA exposure from any combination of sources — diet, cosmetics, and even the kind of thermal paper used for cash register receipts — is considerably less than the safe level, or the “tolerable daily intake (TDI).”

EFSA’s report suggested those TDIs be safely lowered, a finding with which the National Food Institute (NFI) at the Technical University of Denmark does not disagree. It just issued its own report stating that EFSA would drop the limits a little too much.

“The National Food Institute has examined EFSA’s toxicological evaluations with a focus on the main conclusions in the report and to determine whether the new TDI is sufficiently protective and thus gives the institute cause to change its earlier assessment of bisphenol A,” according to the NFI’s statement on its review.

NFI’s scientists found that, “… EFSA’s new TDI does not adequately protect against endocrine disrupting effects. One reason is that EFSA does not apply an appropriate uncertainty factor. Moreover the researchers find that EFSA in establishing the new TDI has not sufficiently taken data from animal studies showing effects on female mammary gland, the male reproductive system, and brain development and function into account.”

According to NFI’s calculations, the new TDI should be 0.7 micrograms per kilogram of body weight per day, or lower, to be sufficiently protective against endocrine disrupting effects. The institute’s assessment is based on the same studies as those in the EFSA report.

“We maintain the National Food Institute’s previous risk assessment of bisphenol A. We evaluate that a tolerable intake of bisphenol A should be lower than one-fifth of the EFSA recommended limit,” says Professor Ulla Hass from the National Food Institute.

As for the North Carolina bill to totally ban the substance, it has yet to receive any consideration from the committee to which it was assigned.

Temperature Logs: A Misunderstood Liability

Tue, 02/24/2015 - 1:02am

Log documentation involving temperature is a necessary tool in any food processing environment. Whether it is cold holding, hot holding, cooking, cooling, refrigeration, freezer or time controlled, temperature logs not only shed a light on whether an employee understands the process, but are also a strong indicator of potential liability.

If left unchecked, no matter what log it is, you may be flirting with compromising someone’s health and exhibiting a lack of control.

Temperature log documentation can become discoverable legal evidence in a court of law. If you don’t have the time, fudge the numbers, don’t record corrective actions or actually document 129 degrees F as your final internal cook temperature of raw chicken because you didn’t properly train your staff — well, you are exposed.

Listed below are some tips regarding the review of temperature logs. Some may seem really basic, or even ridiculous, but in an effort to share best practices, take it for what it is worth.

• In order to record any temperature on any log, a properly calibrated thermometer is needed. I can’t tell you how many times over the years I have asked food handlers for one, but they come up short.

• Temperature logs need to be done at work, not on the couch in the living room with a cold adult beverage.

• Make sure the cooling process starts at 135 degrees F and the second hour is at 70 degrees F or below. If not, a corrective action should be recorded such as the product was properly reheated or discarded. Make sure that the method of cooling, if accelerated such as an ice bath or blast chiller, is recorded on the log.

• If the numbers are consistently the same day after day, week after week, and month after month, those logs are being dry-docked.

• Employees should be cross-trained on temperature log documentation. Not just one person should be responsible.

• Management should be properly trained on temperature log documentation. If they are not, what type of example are they setting?

• Refrigeration logs not only reveal potential thermal abuse, but they can also give you a heads up if there is an issue with an extended defrost cycle that needs attention.

• If there is a hot holding temperature issue, check the setting on the unit, or is that bad boy even turned on?

• If you don’t have a refrigeration log that records product temperature in an emergency, such as a power outage, you are rolling the dice.

• Ask food handlers basic relevant questions, such as what is the temperature danger zone, what is the proper temperature for hot/cold holding, and to what temperature should this product be cooked? Hopefully, you will not be unpleasantly surprised.

How to Choose and Use a Food Thermometer

Tue, 02/24/2015 - 1:01am

Our recent article about why thermometers are important for food safety may have gotten you thinking about getting one or using the one you have more often. If so, here’s some advice on how to select and use one.

If you’re in the market for a new food thermometer, there are a lot of options out there from the $6 dial thermometer to the $99 digital thermometer that sends alerts to your smartphone from the grill.

Any food safety educator you ask will probably tell you about a particular instrument that’s their personal favorite, but in general, they recommend that consumers pick a digital one because it’s tip-sensitive.

From there, the choice to spend $20 or $90 probably depends on how much you cook.

“It’s a tool just like a frying pan,” says Benjamin Chapman, associate professor of food safety at North Carolina State University. “The more you cook, the more investment you put into your tools.”

An inexpensive thermometer makes sense for someone who doesn’t cook a lot of raw meat and poultry.

The different prices for digital thermometers typically have to do with their durability, their speed, and special features such as a smartphone connection or being fully dishwasher-safe.

“You’ll generally pay more for a faster response time,” says Tom Woodbury, chef and national account manager for Thermoworks.

He advises people to be careful with thermometers labeled “Instant Read.”

“Some thermometer manufacturers use that term to describe the frequency with which the display is updated, but not necessarily the speed that the thermometer display reflects an accurate temperature,” Woodbury notes.

As for dial thermometers, or bi-metallic stems, they’re “not great tools,” Chapman says. “They’re fine in a jam, but they do have to be calibrated.”

Over time, the expansion and contraction of the probe’s metal housing can cause the mechanical works inside to shift and then show an incorrect temperature.

To calibrate a thermometer, you place it into either ice water or boiling water and adjust the dial accordingly.

Woodbury recommends that people check the accuracy of their dial thermometers at least one a month, prior to a big cooking event such as Thanksgiving, and if it’s been dropped or possibly damaged in some way.

Chapman says you can also calibrate digital thermometers and that he checks his once or twice a year — typically around Thanksgiving.

“Everyone who’s cooking or eating food should probably have a thermometer,” he says, “but how often you use it is definitely going to dictate how much you would want to invest in it.”

Once you’ve got a thermometer that works for you, you’ll want to use it to find the “cool spot” of whatever you’re cooking. If it’s meat or poultry, try to get the thermometer’s sensor into the thickest part of the muscle, away from bone. This is where it takes the heat the longest to penetrate.

Woodbury says that most digital thermometers have a sensor an eighth of an inch away from the tip, but in dial types, they can stretch up to an inch away.

If you take a reading and find out the meat you’re cooking is at less than the minimum temperature, be sure to wash the thermometer before you take another reading. If the food is contaminated, washing the probe helps to keep from reintroducing any pathogens to the meat.

Chapman adds that it’s a good idea to take the temperature at multiple spots of your food item since the heat could be unevenly distributed, especially when cooking ground meat products and microwaving.

And thermometers aren’t just for omnivores. People who are immunocompromised — those going through chemotherapy, for example — and need all their food to be thoroughly cooked can use a food thermometer to ensure that their fruits and vegetables are safe to eat.

CDC: Salmonella Linked to MD Cucumbers Killed 1, Sickened 275 in 2014

Mon, 02/23/2015 - 1:03am

At least 275 people in 29 states and Washington, D.C., were sickened and one man died in a Salmonella outbreak linked to cucumbers grown in the Delmarva region of Maryland, according to a report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published Friday.

This is the first public mention of the outbreak, which occurred between May 20 and Sept. 30, 2014.

CDC began investigating the outbreak in August, when a cluster of Salmonella Newport illnesses showed up on PulseNet, the national database of transmittable diseases. Salmonella with that particular genetic code last appeared on PulseNet in an outbreak from 2006-2007 linked to tomatoes grown in the Delmarva region of Virginia.

Thirty-four percent of patients were hospitalized. One elderly man was diagnosed with bacteremia and died.

After CDC and local and state health officials traced the infections back to cucumbers grown at a farm in Delmarva — several months after harvest — they began testing soil and manure samples but couldn’t find any remaining contamination. However, investigators did learn that the farm applied poultry litter approximately 120 days before harvest.

Historically, this genetic variety of Salmonella has only been associated with tomatoes grown in the region, with outbreaks occurring in 2002 (333 cases), 2005 (72), 2006 (115), and 2007 (65), with a suspected outbreak in 2010 (51).

The exact source of the contamination, however, has eluded investigators.

In the report, CDC said that the source of contamination “should be identified and mitigated to prevent future outbreaks.”

Editor’s Note: This article originally reported that the cucumbers came from the Delmarva region of Virginia. That was incorrect. The contaminated cucumbers were grown in the Delmarva region of Maryland, while previous cases with the same Salmonella strain have been linked to tomatoes from the Delmarva region of Virginia.